Canada has started rationing PCR tests as Omicron surges

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Josh Kaye

Josh is the main author of Northern Currents. Josh is an electrician of 10 years and has been interested in radical politics for even longer. Follow on Twitter at @josh_nc. Support Northern Currents by adding to the Tip Jar.

Montreal, parts of British Columbia, and Alberta have started to ration Covid-19 PCR tests as Omicron cases reach record numbers across Canada. The jury is still out on whether or not Omicron is milder than previous strains, as different studies and reports have come to contradictory conclusions.

Canada is about to find out, real quick, how virulent Omicron really is.

Even though the world has known about Omicron and its high transmissibility since late November, many places in Canada are seemingly caught off guard. Due to the sheer scale of the number of new cases, PCR tests could be in short supply in some areas.

Mass screening campaigns, N95 face masks, early booster rollouts, and swift, strong restrictions could have helped blunt the blow of Omicron, but our federal and provincial governments didn’t act.


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Montreal

Montreal is now counting rapid tests, without the need to confirm their status with a PCR, as has been the case thus far:

Meanwhile in Montreal, public-health director Mylène Drouin said Montrealers who get a positive result from a rapid antigen test should assume the outcome is well founded and need not undertake another screening to confirm their status. “With the widespread transmission we have now, all the types of tests are reliable,” Dr. Drouin said.

Montrealers with a positive rapid test result need to self-isolate for 10 days. They also need to notify their close contacts.

Montreal recorded 3,668 new cases in the past day but Dr. Drouin said, “It’s surely an underestimation of the reality because many people of course didn’t manage to get an appointment for a test.”

The city’s proportion of Omicron cases is 90 per cent. Also, the testing positivity rate is around 20 per cent, meaning that one in five Montrealers who get screened had been infected. “That’s unheard of,” Dr. Drouin said.

Alberta

Alberta Health is now trying to “conserve supply” of PCR tests:

To conserve supply of PCR tests, Alberta Health is recommending anyone experiencing symptoms with access to a rapid testing kit to isolate and use the rapid tests instead of booking an appointment for a PCR test.

“If you are symptomatic and have access to a rapid testing kit, we encourage you to use that test instead of a PCR test,” Hinshaw said. Anyone with a PCR test booked now is being asked to cancel it to free up space for those who are high risk.

If the rapid test comes back positive, Hinshaw said the person should isolate and notify any close contacts. If the test is negative, isolate but take another rapid test within 24 to 48 hours.

Even if the test is negative a second time, Hinshaw said the person should continue to isolate until symptoms resolve.

“As the proportion of Omicron cases goes higher and higher, it’s actually quite a reasonable thing to tell someone who’s feeling symptomatic that they probably have COVID-19,” Hinshaw said.

Vancouver Coastal Health

In the case of Vancouver Coastal Health, the health authority says they aren’t running out of PCR tests. In what seems like a complete 180-degree turn, they are now advocating for “the use of rapid tests” as an “important strategy to help absorb the increase in demand for testing.” 


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One is left to wonder why the sudden shift, as BC has been very reluctant to deploy rapid tests to the general public so far. Why use rapid tests now?

The health authority that spans Metro Vancouver, the Sea to Sky region and the Sunshine Coast says it has begun using rapid antigen tests in addition to standard PCR tests as demand for COVID-19 testing increases.

It says in a statement that most people will now be offered a rapid test, while PCR tests will be prioritized for people at greater risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

What has become clear is that our leaders at the very highest levels have taken a calculated risk of delayed, reactive restrictions in the name of keeping the economy sputtering along. The inevitable result is more severe illness, long covid, and of course, more deaths. 

Politicians didn’t want to make moves that they perceived as unpopular. Covid fatigue is setting in among the population; our leaders didn’t want to take the political risk of doing the right thing – at the expense of the rest of us.

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